Iris Sempertegui moved to Forest Hills from her native Ecuador just five months ago, but her still somewhat broken English is decently understandable.
She attributes that to one of the first decisions she made upon relocating to the United States — enrolling in an English class for adults at the Queens Community House.
“It’s so beautiful. I enjoy it so much,” Sempertegui said of her class. “I have the opportunity to meet people, to learn the culture and know the history of this country.”
That was the sentiment of the approximately 100 students who rallied at Borough Hall on Tuesday to oppose $12 million in funding cuts for adult literacy classes as put forth in Mayor de Blasio’s fiscal year 2019 preliminary budget.
According to a city source, the cost of such programming was $90 million in the last fiscal year — paid for with federal, state and city dollars.
Organized by the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy, Tuesday’s rally featured speakers from a number of borough groups that offer English classes — including the Queens Community House, the Flushing YMCA, the Chinese-American Planning Council, Make the Road New York, the English Language Center at LaGuardia Community College and others.
One of the officials leading chants of “Ole ole ole ole, more money, more money” was English Language Center tutor Marlyn Suarez, who told the story of a former student from Thailand named Ken.
Suarez said his response to a simple question she asks all her students — what animal best represents them — has stuck with her.
“Ken was an amazing student. He had a PhD back in Thailand and presented at numerous international conferences,” Suarez said. “In response to my question about what animal best represents him, he states, ‘Back at home, I feel like a tiger. But in New York, I feel like nothing but a bug.’
“I’m sure he’s not the only student who feels this way,” she added, “which is why we are here advocating for the mayor to baseline adult literacy.”
Chinese-American Planning Council Director of Policy and Advocacy Amy Torres used her time with the bullhorn to ask how many students had been enrolled in English classes for at least one year.
Almost everyone in attendance raised their hands.
“Learning and education is a multiyear process. Yet every year, we find ourselves here asking the mayor to please not forget our classes,” she said. “If we want to be the fairest city of the nation, that means not only providing sanctuary, it means providing opportunity for everyone who lives here.”
Chinese-American Planning Council student Irene Wong, a New Hyde Park resident, said she moved to Queens from her native China with her husband a decade ago.
After the rally, she told the Chronicle that the Flushing-based group’s English class she has taken for the last two years has changed her life for the better.
“English is not our main language and it can be difficult to communicate with co-workers and other people, so it’s important we have these classes,” Wong said fluently. “It’s very important for new immigrants.”
Tuesday’s event was the first of many planned for the five boroughs this spring — the next rally will be in the Bronx next week — according to United Neighborhood Houses Co-director of Policy Kevin Douglas, whose speech closed the rally.
“This is the beginning of an effort across this city to let the mayor and elected officials know it’s important not to forget this community,” he said. “There are hundreds of students here from Queens … but we know this is a problem for New Yorkers all across the city.
The $12 million in question was also proposed to be cut in last year’s city budget, but was eventually restored. A source told the paper that such an allocation will again be considered in this cycle.
But mayoral spokesman Freddi Goldstein told the Chronicle on Tuesday that city funding being spent on the subway system has forced the administration to consider cuts elsewhere.
“Ensuring our immigrant communities have the tools they need to succeed is a top priority of the Mayor’s, which is why the City currently provides many essential services, including adult literacy and English language learning programs,” Goldstein said. “Unfortunately though, times are increasingly tight, and the $418 million dollars we just spent to fix the state-run subways, which the Council supported, will only make this year’s budget process all the more lean.”
When asked why English literacy classes deserve to be funded, Sempertegui said she relies on her schooling to not just become a productive member of society, but to be able to express herself.
“I need to be able to talk with people. I love to talk and I want to know everything about them,” she said. “I want to enjoy this beautiful city and meet people.”